The triumphant reek of the AT thru-hiker.
Illustration by Danny Hellman
A juvenile skunk had been roaming our neighborhood for several days in August despite attempts to shoo him back into the woods. After he had sprayed two overly curious neighbor dogs, I lured him into my trashcan with a peanut butter, watermelon and taco meat sandwich. I then hauled him to a nature preserve a few miles from our home and released him into the forest.
The little guy’s retaliatory squirt mostly missed me. I smelled for a couple days and our trash can is toast, but overall, the mission was a success.
I tell this story only to lend credibility to this odious opinion: Skunks smell better than Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.
Thru-hikers are the super-human among us who hike the full 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail running from Georgia to Maine. Virginia is home to the largest section of any state—550 miles, of which I serve as a lowly Potomac Appalachian Trail Club trail maintainer for 2.8 miles of briar-prone ridgeline near our home northwest of Leesburg.
I’m a hiker, distance runner and longtime baseball coach who often wears those sporty, stink-stashing wicking fabrics, but I have hiked only small stretches of the AT. Translation: I have covered significant ground and I have smelled wretched doing it, but I have not covered the kind of ground that creates a stench so hideous that it regularly drives clean people from thru-hiker-visited structures, and, like those who deal with decaying corpses, to apply Mentholatum under their noses.
But, somehow, diametric to the repulsion is a sweet appeal. It’s the funk of studs. Who among us doesn’t strive to reek so triumphantly? It may be the most respected fetor in America.
Studly or not, though, stink is stink. Chris Brunton, who along with his wife oversees a popular trailside campsite and lodge in western Loudoun County, has to throw away chair cushions used by thru-hikers at the end of each season. And while the expansive open-air porch of the historic Blackburn Center is open to thru-hikers, the rooms of the lodge are not.
“The smell doesn’t go away,” says Brunton, a longtime AT volunteer and hiker. “It’s a very unique, powerful and penetrating smell.”
Max Mishkin, the Stewardship Records Consultant for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy who stunk mightily when he hiked the full AT in 2014, says thru-hiker smell is, like Sasquatch, legendary enough to have many names—The Hiker Smell. Mountain Funk. The Katahdin Concoction.
“It’s the truest measure of one’s separation from the bathed and perfumed masses,” Mishkin raptures. “Yet it’s a fickle thing. It can repel our dearest friends and family and do nothing to ward off nighttime bears and mosquitoes. It can become so omnipresent that you fail to notice it, yet it has the power to open every window during the taxi ride from the trailhead.”
(A confession here: In early June I was asked by a thru-hiker for a ride to a nearby hostel. I claimed I had to rush in the opposite direction to pick up my son from school, a school which was actually close to the hostel and actually closed for summer break.)
Mishkin says the smell is a potent cocktail of sweat, DEET, dirt, damp microbe-ridden socks and clothes, and foot odor. (He is too much the gentleman to mention fouled groinage). It takes at least three days and some amount of rain and high humidity to get the funk on, he says.
But Mishkin is no olfactory scientist. Brigitte Rolfe, a semi-retired researcher for the MITRE Corporation in McLean, has conducted numerous studies on odors, including one in which her team attempted to determine if changes in people’s body odor while telling a lie could be detected with enough precision to be used in lie-detector tests.
No, is the short, truthful answer. There are simply too many variables involved, which, she says, points to the fallacy of the idea that there is one unique AT thru-hiker funk.
“As far as we can tell, no two people on earth smell exactly alike,” says Rolfe. “The oils coming out of you—the recipe is all your own, it’s like a fingerprint. That’s why a well-trained dog can track the molecules you leave behind for days.” So, she says, while a clean human might perceive all thru-hikers to smell the same, a bloodhound would perceive all thru-hikers to stink uniquely.
“Forty-eight hours after a bomb has been placed and detonated, dogs have successfully tracked the bomber because of their unique identifying odor,” she says. On a cheerier note she adds: “People can pick up subtle odors, too. One test showed you can smell the difference between people who have seen a horror film and those who have seen a comedy.” Not to get too meta here, but consider this: Those of us who have been confronted by the shocking smell of a thru-hiker have, in turn, released our own unique reactionary smell because of our horror at confronting that smell.
Alas, as unique and victorious as the smell may be, I still want no part of it. So, for all the respect I have for Max Mishkin and all those others capable of walking from Georgia to Maine, I still will always choose to smell my own unique stink of deceit over the alternative when a thru-hiker asks to ride in my car.